‘We’re recoiling’: Portland Fire Bureau ditching bond measure after poll showed angry voters

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Jan. 28, 2022 11:45 p.m.

While officials admit the poll results were bad, they have not been forthcoming with specific numbers.

Portland Fire Bureau leaders are shelving a bond measure aiming to fix two run-down facilities after polling showed little voter appetite for the proposal.

Aaron Johnson, a senior policy advisor with Portland Fire & Rescue, said officials had been hoping to put a roughly $147 million borrowing plan on the May ballot. He said the bond would go towards upgrading two properties — a logistics facility that stores materials and where mechanics service trucks and engines, and the bureau’s training facility for new recruits.


But polling done for the bureau showed voters are in a foul mood.

Portland Fire & Rescue is the state's largest provider of pre-hospital care. Rich Chatman, a spokesperson for the fire bureau, says firefighters are bracing for the 911-calls to increase and trying to figure out how to hone in on those callers who are critically ill.

A Portland firefighter works on a truck in one of the Portland Fire Bureau's stations in this 2020 file photo. The Portland Fire Bureau recently put plans for a bond measure on hold after a poll showed tepid support and angry voters.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

“We’re recoiling, like, ‘Wow. I’ve been with Portland Fire since 2012, and I’ve never seen a poll like that,’” Johnson said. “We’ve always polled really high.”

While officials admit the poll results were bad, they have not been forthcoming with specific numbers.

Johnson said he was hesitant to go into details about the poll’s details, but that the sentiment from Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the bureau, and Fire Chief Sara Boone is that they were “not high enough.”

OPB has filed a public records request for the poll, which was paid for by the city. Hardesty’s staff directed inquiries on the poll’s specifics to the fire bureau.


Rumors have circulated around Portland City Hall in recent weeks that the poll also showed Hardesty would be the wrong official to champion the bond measure. Her staff declined to answer questions about whether the poll suggested potential voters are especially unhappy with Hardesty, who is up for reelection this year.

Instead, they provided this statement:

“I’m very disappointed that a poll looking at the electoral prospects of a Fire Bond to fix their broken, dilapidated facilities appears unlikely to receive the support it would need to pass during the next election and will not be moving forward at this time,” Hardesty wrote. “Our firefighters are heroes who have stepped up in every way they have been asked, from responding to 911 calls, aiding in our COVID-19 relief efforts, vaccinating our community, combating wildfires, and so much more.”

Since her election 2018, Hardesty has been one of the most vocal members of the Portland City Council, particularly on issues of racial justice and police reform. Along the way, she has drawn the ire of some political moderates, who say her more progressive approach to policymaking is not working during a time of multiple crises. People for Portland, a political advocacy campaign, has been critical of her in ads calling for the city to hire more police. So far, Hardesty has attracted 7 opponents for the upcoming election.

The commissioner said she will join bureau leaders at a press event next week to discuss the bond and tour of the facilities. She said the poll will be released next week.

The logistics facility is located at 1300 Southeast Gideon Street, and the bureau’s training division is located at 4800 NE 122nd Avenue.

Johnson said the bureau needed the bond to rehab the two facilities, both of which are earthquake-vulnerable and in poor condition. Parts of the training facility, he said, currently don’t have running water. Staff who are not in the main building must use porta potties.

Johnson said he chalked up the poor poll results to the frustration Portlanders feel right now with the overall state of Portland.

“My personal feeling is that people are frustrated with the city, period,” he said. “I don’t see it as being a fire-specific issue.”

The bureau had been moving toward asking voters to let the city borrow money to repair the two facilities since 2014. Since then, the bureau has hired two different architecture companies to conduct a needs assessment for the facilities. The most recent assessment, conducted by Carleton Hart Architecture, estimated the logistics facility would cost $89 million and the training and prevention facility $58 million, according to a graphic provided by the bureau.

“It feels like we’ve just been going in circles for years,” he said. “The time we finally get to this point, the voters are clearly not in the mood.”